This Saturday on Sky Box Office (3 p.m. ET) and Showtime (5:15 p.m. ET), we'll see the return of Anthony Joshua, the IBF world heavyweight titleholder and top heavyweight prospect, as he takes on Dominic Breazeale in London. The undercard will feature George Groves vs Martin Murray in a pivotal super middleweight fight, plus Chris Eubank Jr and John Wayne Hibbert in separate bouts.
Here's a look at the matchups.
Anthony Joshua vs Dominic Breazeale
Record: 16-0 (16 KO) ... Streak: W16 ... Last 5: 5-0 ... Last 10: 10-0 ... Stance: Orthodox ... Height/Reach: 6’6" / 82" ... Age: 26
Thoughts: The hype behind Anthony Joshua is otherworldly in the United Kingdom. He’s the sort of fighter who inspires fans to take up arms for his cause, if you will -- they get loud, they get excited, and they frankly get a little outrageously fanatical. To some of them, Anthony Joshua is the clear-cut heir to the great heavyweight throne. There is no question about his stamina, how he responds to real adversity, or his overall skill set. He’s 6'6", he looks the part, he hits real hard, and he's smashed his limited opposition to date.
Calling Joshua’s opposition "limited" isn't meant as a Big Statement or anything like that; it’s just a fact, and it’s not like it’s unexpected or unacceptable. He’s 16 fights into his pro career. Of course he's faced people his promoters signed up to make him look good. That’s how it works. And really, they’ve been at least mildly ambitious, considering Joshua still has things to work on. It's not a shameful run of matchmaking. He’s faced a lot of guys you’d expect a top prospect in fights 1-16 to face.
He is still a prospect, though. Yes, he holds the IBF heavyweight title, but he shouldn’t. For one thing, Tyson Fury never lost that belt, part of the collection he won from Wladimir Klitschko last year, and for another thing, Joshua beat Charles Martin, who won the title via injury to Vyacheslav Glazkov. Martin may genuinely have been the worst fighter to ever hold one of the big four heavyweight titles (WBC, WBA, IBF, and WBO). At any rate, you'd be very hard-pressed to think of someone worse. Even Michael Bentt was a standout amateur. Even Nikolai Valuev was a gigantic mountain of a man and imposing and sturdy. Bruce Seldon’s jab alone makes him better than Martin.
Anyway, that’s not Joshua’s fault. Martin was a good fight for him at that time, IBF title aside. The IBF belt is just a political prop, really, used to call Anthony Joshua "world heavyweight champion," a bogus claim, and further solidify him as a pay-per-view fighter in the United Kingdom, even if he's fighting the likes of Charles Martin and now Dominic Breazeale.
Joshua has a lot of weight on his shoulders. Boxing is not, no matter what anyone tells you, healthy. It's not in a good state right now. Blame whatever factors you want (and there’s a lot of blame to go around), but while the Mayweather/Pacquiao era kept the sport in stable if fairly weak condition, the last year and change has been a wreck. Boxing has an old fan base that has shown no signs that it will get younger.
That said, a new star can make a difference. One fight or one fighter won't make boxing as a sport headline news for every fight again, but it can help prop up the sport a bit more, as we saw with the last era. Anthony Joshua is one of the very few fighters who might truly have the ability to do that. He’s young, he's powerful, he’s charismatic, and he has invigorated fight fans in the United Kingdom, and could definitely cross over well to the United States in due time. And the bigger and louder the crowds get, and the brighter the light shines on Joshua, and the more pressure is put on him in this regard, the tougher things may get for him — or he could be the exact right guy. The true stars rise to the occasion under the most pressure.
I do like Anthony Joshua, think he’s a terrific prospect, but he’s still got a lot to prove. That said, he should likely be getting relatively easy matchups for a bit longer, and he certainly has one on Saturday.
Record: 17-0 (15 KO) ... Streak: W17 ... Last 5: 5-0 ... Last 10: 10-0 ... Stance: Orthodox ... Height/Reach: 6’7" / 81½" ... Age: 30
Thoughts: Dominic Breazeale seems like a nice guy. He seems like a guy who works hard on his craft, a transitioned football player who was a quarterback for the University of Northern Colorado, before taking up the sweet science after his football days ended.
When you watched Breazeale as an amateur, you could tell that he was still very much learning on the job. That said, he was good enough to become the top super heavyweight in the United States, and earn a spot on the 2012 Olympic team, where he was quickly routed by Magomed Omarov of Russia.
As a pro, he has not been particularly impressive, still a project more than a prospect, and the reality is that if the people handling his career thought there was a genuinely bright future ahead of him with some time and patience, he wouldn’t be matched with Anthony Joshua right now. He’s here because they might as well throw the Hail Mary with him. If he wins, hey, great, he shocks the world and becomes an instant star, even if it's short term. If he loses, well, whatever, he's supposed to lose, and better to lose in a big fight against the hottest name in the division than in some undercard bout in Alabama or California, which he's come close to doing in each of his last two fights.
If you haven’t seen Breazeale, those two fights alone will give you an idea of what Joshua is up against, and why he's the prohibitive favorite here. Last September, Breazeale narrowly escaped with a win over Fred Kassi, in a fight that frankly, he probably should have lost. More troubling than the fact that he got the win was how awful the scores were: 97-93 and 98-92 were terrible enough, but 100-90 was downright laughable. I had that fight 97-93 for Kassi, and the best I could have possibly seen for Breazeale was a draw. It was scoring so bad that Sugar Ray Leonard, normally a pretty neutral commentator on the PBC on NBC broadcasts, openly ripped the judges’ decision.
Kassi is a short, awkward fighter, durable and tricky, and he gave Breazeale fits. To be entirely fair, Hughie Fury didn't exactly light the place up in his fight with Kassi on April 30 of this year, either. But the fight exposed the fundamental problems that Breazeale has — he works hard, but he is technically flawed, and still looks very much like someone who is not a natural boxer. He is someone who has learned to adapt his athleticism and size to boxing as best he can.
In his next outing, Breazeale had another terrible time in with a smaller veteran fighter. This time, almost everyone expected it, as I didn't hear from many people who were picking against Amir Mansour on January 23. Breazeale was down in the third round, but to his credit showed a lot of toughness and resolve, getting back up and getting himself into the fight, which ended prematurely when Mansour retired after the fifth round, having bitten his tongue so badly that he required 36 stitches to close it. It was a weird ending, and I still think an Amir Mansour with a whole entire tongue and a mouth not filling with blood would beat Dominic Breazeale, but there were things to like about Breazeale’s performance. If nothing else, he showed he can get knocked down and not give up.
Matchup Grade: C-. 100 percent, I expect this fight to be over in the first two rounds. And 100 percent, I think it’s a horseshit world title fight, with a champion whose claim is bunk against a guy who shouldn’t be near a world title bout. But I won't go too harsh on the grade, because when you take away the paper title -- which you might as well since it means nothing if you're not literally Anthony Joshua’s promoter or Anthony Joshua himself -- this is a perfectly acceptable 17th professional fight for a top prospect. It’s not a GREAT 17th pro fight for a top prospect, but it's hardly abnormally bad. It’s a pretty normal stepping stone fight being billed and sold as something far more than that. It's easy to sneer and scoff at this matchup, and there are good reasons to do so, but when you take away all the hoopla, the fight itself is just your average no-brainer, not abysmal.
George Groves vs Martin Murray
Record: 23-3 (18 KO) ... Streak: W2 ... Last 5: 4-1 ... Last 10: 7-3 ... Stance: Orthodox ... Height/Reach: 5'11½" / 72" ... Age: 28
Thoughts: At one point, George Groves looked like he might emerge as one of the very best super middleweights in boxing. When he and former amateur rival James DeGale, who had much more hype as a pro prospect at the time, met up in 2011, it was an interesting event. Both guys had been given TV push, and their rivalry played up big time, but seeing them actually square off in fights No. 11 for DeGale and 13 for Groves was surprising and intriguing.
Groves won, just as he had when they were amateurs, in a 12-round majority decision that was extremely close and could have gone either way. It went Groves’ way by a hair, and he added DeGale's British title to the Commonwealth belt he’d already won in 2010.
From there, he smashed Paul Smith and Francisco Sierra, shut out Glen Johnson, and then, well, kind of stagnated for the first three fights of 2013, still beating overmatched opponents and no longer moving forward, biding his time for a big world title opportunity, which he received in November of that year against Carl Froch.
Groves dropped Froch in the first round, and for all the world, it looked like we were about to have a new young star in the 168-pound ranks, as George Groves was going to knock off Froch, the outstanding war horse who maybe was just getting up there in age, and feeling the effects of a tough schedule for several years.
Instead, Froch stormed back and stopped Groves in the ninth round. At the time, Groves led on scores of 78-73, 76-75, and 76-75. The stoppage, though, was worthy of outrage -- there’s still no question in my mind that Howard John Foster pulled the plug too early there, and I am usually one to err on the side of caution.
The controversy of the stoppage led to a huge rematch the following May, in front of 80,000 at Wembley Stadium, where Froch started slow but rallied and battered Groves, stopping him quite conclusively in the eighth round.
Those two losses took a toll on Groves, physically and mentally, but he didn't wait around forever, coming back four months later to win the European super middleweight title from Christopher Rebrasse, followed with another win just two months after that against Denis Douglin.
In 2015, Groves went to Las Vegas to challenge Badou Jack for the WBC title, and despite going down in the first round, came back to make a good fight of it, losing a tough split decision. He’s since fought two times against easy opponents, Andrea di Luisa and David Brophy, and now he’s back to targeting another world title shot in the near future.
Starting with the Froch fights, it’s been hard to figure out what, exactly, to make of Groves’ prospects. He's 4-3 since November 2013, and 0-3 against serious opponents. But he also was not uncompetitive in any of those fights. He gave Jack all he could handle after a rough start, and was a handful for Froch both times, too.
If I were to say there’s one thing that really worries me about Groves, it’s the trainer shuffle we’ve seen in recent years. He's gone from Adam Booth to Paddy Fitzpatrick to Shane McGuigan, praising each of them along the way, and then throwing them under the bus when things go sour. If Groves drops this fight, will McGuigan be on the chopping block next? Chad Dawson is a recent fighter who constantly changed trainers, and it didn’t help him much. Oscar De La Hoya was notorious for hiring and firing trainers, and though he obviously had a great career, he did lose most of his really high level fights. I've always had the feeling that switching trainers, and more importantly blaming them for losses, shows a lack of accountability, or even dedication. That doesn't make that unassailably true or anything, but it's always something that raises a red flag for me personally.
Record: 33-3-1 (16 KO) ... Streak: W1 ... Last 5: 4-1 ... Last 10: 8-2 ... Stance: Orthodox ... Height/Reach: 6’0" / 73" ... Age: 33
Thoughts: Martin Murray, like George Groves, has had repeated chances at world titles, and always come up a bit short. He's got a different set of stories, though. While Groves very legitimately lost to Froch and Jack, Murray’s first two world title opportunities were far more frustrating.
In 2011, Murray went to Germany to face Felix Sturm. The fight wound up a split draw, and Germany + Sturm + draw = controversy, period. Murray had a good argument for the win in that fight, but didn’t get it. In April 2013, Murray went to Argentina to face Sergio Martinez, the true middleweight champion of the world. Murray dropped "Maravilla" in the eighth round, but all three judges scored it 115-112 for the defending champion. I had it 114-113 Murray. I thought he’d done enough to score the upset.
His next two opportunities didn’t have quite so much post-fight drama. Gennady Golovkin mauled him in February 2015, stopping the game but overpowered Murray in the 11th round, and Arthur Abraham beat Murray by split decision last November in Murray’s first 168-pound title try. I had that one for Abraham, 114-113, with the difference being a point deduction against Murray late in the fight, so he once again fought pretty much even, but if you watch that fight, Murray really only has himself to blame for the loss there. It felt throughout like he really could have been doing more, like Abraham was there for the taking, and Murray just didn't step on the gas enough.
Anyway, Groves is 0-3 in world title fights, and Murray is 0-4. But these are both still good fighters, top 10 guys in the super middleweight division, and a win in this fight sets the victor up for another chance at another world title.
There’s not a whole lot to say about Martin Murray, really. He’s not had a particularly colorful boxing career, he’s just a good, solid fighter, durable and capable, but has fallen just short against his very best opponents, though he's had arguments in three of those four fights. He won’t make this easy for Groves. The question, really, is whether or not Martin Murray is good enough to be too good for Groves, and vice versa.
Matchup Grade: B. No arguments on this one, this is the fight I’m most interested in on this card, because it's easily the best-matched. Call it a "bridesmaid" fight if you want -- you know, "always a bridesmaid, never a bride" — but it's two contenders trying to earn another shot at glory. They’re both still fighting well, they both still have some hunger, and they both still feel as though the right night is coming for them, even after the prior failures. And they may both be right.
Chris Eubank Jr vs Tom Doran
Chris Eubank Jr
Record: 22-1 (17 KO) ... Streak: W4 ... Last 5: 4-1 ... Last 10: 9-1 ... Stance: Orthodox ... Height/Reach: 5'11" / N/A ... Age: 26
Thoughts: Eubank has graduated from curiosity to contender pretty quickly, never more impressive than in his last fight, a TKO-10 win over Nick Blackwell on March 26 at Wembley Arena.
There has been some hemming and hawing since then that it was a mismatch, but it’s the best win on Eubank’s record, too. The tragedy of Blackwell collapsing and having his career ended should not be glossed over, but that same thing just as easily could have happened against Spike O’Sullivan, Tony Jeter, or Dmitry Chudinov in Eubank’s prior three fights; it could happen in any fight. It could happen here against Tom Doran, who is far more overmatched on paper than Blackwell was.
I don’t mean to turn you off of watching these fights or watching boxing in general, but personally I prefer to remember the looming danger of potential tragedy in boxing, even when it’s not currently happening right in front of my face on live television somewhere in the world. What happened to Nick Blackwell was terrible, and thankfully it wasn't worse. And it can happen in any fight, really.
But let's talk about Eubank’s ability. Against Blackwell, he was a level or two above a very tough fighter, who had given Billy Joe Saunders his first serious test back in 2012, coming about as close to beating Billy Joe as Eubank would in 2014. Blackwell was also the British champion, making his third title defense after beating John Ryder in 2015, and then defending against Damon Jones and Jack Arnfield.
I’m not arguing Blackwell as a world class fighter, but there was still at least a little doubt about Eubank's actual quality going into that fight, and it wasn't hard to envision a much tougher fight than the one we got. Eubank’s pure, "God-given" talents were a cut above, and he’s started to put it all together better as a boxer, too. He was aggressive, at times reckless in the fight, but it didn’t seem to come with the same measure of slop that we sometimes saw from him in past fights, where he’d get reckless and you’d think, "If he does that against someone better, he’s getting cracked."
Eubank's potential is seemingly being met, and that makes him a very intriguing man in the middleweight division. He’s also talks an ambitious game, and has said for a while that he'd fight Gennady Golovkin if the fight were offered. Still, the level of opposition he faced between Saunders and Eubank, and before Saunders, is what it is, and this fight, frankly, is more of that same thing. Hopefully, this is just a pit stop fight to get him onto the big card and set up something bigger before the end of 2016, because we know very well Eubank can thrash this level of opposition.
Record: 17-0 (7 KO) ... Streak: W17 ... Last 5: 5-0 ... Last 10: 10-0 ... Stance: Orthodox ... Height/Reach: N/A / N/A ... Age: 28
Thoughts: Tom Doran's plan, he says, is to expose the chinks in Eubank's armor and test his chin, something he doesn’t think has been done to date, and he believes he has the power to hurt Eubank.
There are two glaring problems with this idea. (1) Doran does not have big power, and the power he has displayed has been against much lesser competition than Eubank, and (2) Doran’s chin has been tested, and the results are not encouraging.
Doran has been knocked down by Max Maxwell, Harry Matthews, and Luke Keeler. These fighters do not have the power, speed, or talent of Chris Eubank Jr.
In short, Doran is overmatched here. That’s not really a secret, and there's not much more to explore. Eubank is decidedly better than the domestic field at middleweight, but he’s just filling time until the big payday presents itself, be it with Billy Joe Saunders, Gennady Golovkin, or someone else.
Matchup Grade: D. Some years back, I played with friends in a local Gus Macker 3-on-3 basketball tournament. It was a fun couple of days for us to go 0-3 and have a nice time on the streets at the top of a bluff, overlooking Lake Michigan. One of my friends had filled in the application and said that he'd played some organized basketball in junior high school. We were all in our 20s by this point, so it didn't mean much, but it was truthful and honest, and we were an honest and truthful bunch. But I'd never played organized ball. And the other two guys on our squad had never played organized ball. And of the other teams in our bracket, you could tell that the same limited experience applied, that we were all just dudes who liked to play some ball for fun. Except one team. This team had a guy who was about 5’10" or so, and he could fucking dunk. He entered the tournament-wide dunk contest, which featured former St. Bonaventure University player and local legend James Singleton dunking over a golf cart, which was quite a thing to see in person. The other three guys on that team also clearly had some actual skills. I found out talking to one of them that they all played college ball — small college ball (like Division III), but college ball nonetheless. My point is this: Chris Eubank Jr is the dude who can dunk and his buddies. We were Tom Doran. They beat us 15-6.
John Wayne Hibbert vs Andrea Scarpa
John Wayne Hibbert
Record: 17-3 (11 KO) ... Streak: W2 ... Last 5: 4-1 ... Last 10: 8-2 ... Stance: Orthodox ... Height/Reach: N/A / N/A ... Age: 31
Thoughts: John Wayne "Doctor" Hibbert is the current Commonwealth titleholder at 140 pounds, but he’s gotten bigger fish to fry now, as his fight with Italy’s Andrea Scarpa is for the vacant WBC "silver" title, which would put him in line for an eventual shot at the Terence Crawford-Viktor Postol winner. I know that does not seem particularly exciting, and frankly if that fight were to be made it would be kind of absurd, but that’s what’s at stake here. More usefully for Hibbert, who would be taken apart by either Crawford or Postol, if one of them wins, vacates, and goes up to 147, Hibbert could be in the mix for a vacant title fight.
Hibbert was stopped in the ninth round of a great fight in May 2015 with Dave Ryan, and got a measure of revenge in September, coming off the canvas to win the rematch, although it ended in the 10th because Ryan suffered a back injury. In January, he defended the Commonwealth belt against Tommy Martin, knocking him out halfway into the 12th round.
Hibbert is a fun fighter to watch. He's got some power, he mixes it up, and he’s tough. Is he a top notch fighter? Nah. But he's enjoyable and comes to fight. That’s plenty enough for the fourth-most important fight on a show.
Record: 19-2 (9 KO) ... Streak: W18 ... Last 5: 5-0 ... Last 10: 10-0 ... Stance: Orthodox ... Height/Reach: 6’0" / N/A ... Age: 29
Thoughts: Scarpa is not your typical Italian in a fight like this. For one thing, he's not 39 years old and deciding that, well, might as well go make some money abroad. He’s actually in what should be his prime, for whatever his prime is worth.
He’s a tall junior welterweight, at six feet even, a former Italian champion at both this weight and at 130, previously. He’s fought his entire career at home against weak opponents, so Hibbert certainly has the better experience coming in.
If Scarpa can generate some power with his height -- debatable given his lackluster KO percentage and the opposition he’s faced -- then he could be a big problem for the shorter Hibbert, who gets hit plenty.
Matchup Grade: C. The hope is simple, that it will be a good fight to watch. It is being billed as something more significant, and there is more on the line for the winner, but that’s really the only role this fight has on the card.